North Carolina’s economy represents a paradox in Southern conservatism. Despite a longstanding tradition of skepticism toward the federal government, the state’s dependence on the U.S. military highlights a glaring cognitive dissonance. The military’s impact on NC State reflects a scaled-down version of the state as a whole, as much of our funding — like all public universities — is contingent upon the university’s allowance of ROTC and recruiters on campus.
Without this funding, much of the technological innovation that we claim with pride would not have been possible. However, just like the communities throughout North Carolina that rely on bases and weapons factories for economic stability, our dependence on the military has created a kind of legal blackmail that stifles NC State’s intellectual and creative freedom, and exploits its students.
In a Technician opinion column published March 5, 2004, Andrew Sheppard calls for the end of NC State’s ROTC program, arguing that “every semester that we continue to support these programs is another semester contributing to ongoing crimes abroad.” It’s remarkable that more than 15 years after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and with the recent U.S.-led interventions in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria, Sheppard’s appeal for an end to the militarization of the university remains alone.
The ROTC as an institution, as Sheppard rightly argues, promotes U.S. imperialism and makes NC State complicit in the failed war on terror. The empty patriotism that ROTC programs use to attract inexperienced and often financially disadvantaged recruits, when unquestioned, is a distraction from the unspeakable horrors that occur on the other side of the world.
In addition to the injustice of war itself, the ROTC is in a unique position at large public universities like NC State to exploit poor and minority students, and contract them into military service in what is arguably a modern form of indentured servitude. In 2013, the Army announced that it planned to close 13 ROTC programs in the rural Southeast while increasing funding to urban programs with the explicit aim of attracting minority students. These targeted minority students are likely to come from low-income backgrounds, given the large intersection between ethnic and racial minorities and economic disadvantage. Students enrolled in ROTC programs receive funding from the military for tuition, books and monthly stipends on the condition that they serve after graduation. For students who have difficulty paying for college, this may be an attractive offer.
However, implicit in this offer is the fact that these students, who may simply have no other realistic way to pay for college, make the decision to literally sell their lives to the federal government — terms that no other scholarship or job would require. Although the recruitment page of NC State’s ROTC website assures students that “most Army ROTC SMP [Simultaneous Membership Program] Cadets in the NG [National Guard] or Reserves have the benefits of the military without the worry of being deployed,” for the number of students who are deployed, they will likely face the terrible reality of participating in profoundly immoral acts.
Most students of college age are also unlikely to appreciate the gravity of their circumstances. As part of their service, they will directly or indirectly encounter huge civilian casualties, extrajudicial imprisonment and killing of terror suspects, and the destabilization of an entire region for generations to come. Instead of their college years being a time of self-discovery and intellectual development, students who elect to join ROTC make the premature decision to potentially sacrifice their lives in an immoral war.
The inexperience of youth, combined with difficult financial circumstances gives the military a clear advantage in this transaction, and traps students inside a toxic culture of blind nationalism and violence. For these reasons, if NC State students care about the moral integrity of our university and our intellectual freedom, we have a moral imperative to abolish the ROTC on our campus.